Alexander Dovzhenko is one of the greatest filmmakers, though you’d never know it if all you had to go on was what you can read about him in English. The best things published about him in English are the out-of-print edition of his selected writings (edited by Marco Carynnyk) and a chapter of Gilberto Perez’s superb The Material Ghost. Otherwise, anyone who wants to explore the Ukrainian director’s work practically has to start from scratch. This you can do yourself now that a retrospective that’s been touring the US and Canada is about to reach the MFA.
Dovzhenko is, to be sure, the subject of two books by American academics. Vance Kepley Jr.’s In the Service of the State (University of Wisconsin Press, 1986) reads the director’s films as the expression and the result of impersonal political forces and social contradictions — an analysis to which, as Kepley states, cinematic style is irrelevant. Just off the press is George O. Liber’s Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film (British Film Institute). This biography brings to light much information about Dovzhenko’s political activities and his rocky relationships with Stalin, Khrushchev, and the Soviet filmmaking hierarchies. But Liber, a history professor, has little to say about Dovzhenko’s films.
Such silence is symptomatic. American film criticism of the past quarter-century has witnessed two main trends. The prevalence of historicist or postmodernist approaches born and bred in university film-studies departments has yielded tepid analyses that avoid asking what it’s actually like to watch a film and why one film might provide a more complex experience than another. The second trend is the degeneracy of journalistic film reviewing, which has become almost without exception an unofficial branch of the publicity departments of film distributors or a naively and pointlessly subjectivist chronicle of individual reviewers’ likes and dislikes (actually, for reasons that would take too long to go into here, it’s both these things at once). If English-language writing on Dovzhenko gives almost no indication of why he’s worth attending to at all, he isn’t alone among film artists to suffer such neglect, though he’s one of the most notable cases of it. (Another is Kenji Mizoguchi.)
Dovzhenko’s films present a challenge to viewers and writers, a challenge that won’t be brushed off in the historicist manner by discounting their æsthetic qualities, or in the journalistic manner by paying empty tribute to their beauty. Beauty might not, however, be a bad place to start with Dovzhenko. As Barthélemy Amengual writes in his excellent (French) book on Dovzhenko: "The great films of Soviet cinema attest, for the most part, to the justice of socialism. Dovzhenko’s persuade us first of its beauty."
This beauty is always grounded in the complexity of reality. Dovzhenko opens Earth (1930; December 8 at 2:30 p.m.) with the tranquil death of an old farmer as he’s surrounded by his friends and family in his apple orchard. The main motifs of this sequence are all efforts to protect this death from time: the long shots of wheat fields, which frame the passage and recur within it; the sunlight shimmering on the old man’s white shirt and white-bearded face; his contented smile; shots of sunflowers, apples, a baby. The mood is of wonder, ripeness, completeness. The scene can be read as showing a symbolic sacrifice: the old man must die so that time, the Communist time, can start moving. But Dovzhenko prolongs, unforgettably, the timelessness of the moment.
There’s another sequence in Earth that’s as marvelous as any in cinema. It shows a young man, Vasil, walking home alone in the moonlight after an assignation with his girlfriend. We first see him walking with his eyes closed, the camera tracking back before him. Then, unexpectedly, he starts to dance. The sequence is extended in a series of jump cuts, as Vasil dances toward the camera, over and over again: each new shot is a risk, a fantasy, asserting an inexhaustible energy.
Each Dovzhenko work contains more different trains of thought, more image patterns, more ideas than we’re used to finding in a single film. His art lies in embracing so much energy, so many vital parts, in an organic whole. A historical epic unlike any other, Arsenal (1929; December 12 at 6 p.m.) moves with compulsive speed and gathering certainty from desolation through chaos to revolution. The construction of the film is exhilarating in the authority of its ellipses, the freedom with which it handles durations, the range and brilliance of its atmospheres.
Arsenal celebrates a battle in which striking workers and pro-Bolshevik Ukrainians defended a Kyiv munitions plant against Ukrainian nationalist forces. But the film is notable for Dovzhenko’s refusal to reject national identity as a source of courage. Although his films, like all Soviet films of their period, were made officially "in the service of the state," they’re deeply subversive. The hero of Zvenigora (1928; December 4 at 6 p.m.), which retells Ukrainian history, is the old grandfather who zealously guards the fabled treasures of the mountain of Zvenigora, not the Communist grandson who builds a future in which these treasures will become meaningless. In Earth, which is ostensibly a paean to Stalin’s forced collectivization of farmland, the only character granted a tragic status is the enemy of progress, a murderous "kulak" (rich farmer) named Khoma. (Which doesn’t make Khoma the film’s hero. Earth transcends tragedy.)
Ivan (1932; December 6 at 6 p.m.) is about a massive construction project on the Dnipro River in Ukraine. A brilliant and erratic film, anticipating the most radical endeavors of left-wing moviemakers of the late ’60s, Ivan is perhaps the most ambivalent of Dovzhenko’s works. Its "unheroic hero" (Dovzhenko’s words), the zealous transplanted farmer Ivan, is balanced by the Falstaffian shirker Stepan, whose misadventures with loudspeakers and with an unseen paymaster introduce crazy comedy into the film’s already volatile mix of river lyricism, political speeches, panegyrics for industry, and pregnant or enigmatic encounters among mismatched members of the proletariat.
Shchors (1939; December 14 at 10:30 a.m.) ought to be the most Stalinist of Dovzhenko’s films, both because of its reverential focus on a leader figure — a Ukrainian revolutionary commander — and because Stalin not only proposed the subject but intervened at several points in the preparation of the film, not least decisively by executing several of its real-life characters. But Dovzhenko makes it a personal film not just in its imagery but in its characterizations. While portraying Shchors as a trim, brainy leader never completely at ease among his men, Dovzhenko builds Shchors’s boisterous, brutal, and outlandish second-in-command, the aging Bozhenko, into an equal figure in his design. The two make a marvelous, mysterious pair: the one too human, the other not human enough.
Like all Dovzhenko’s films, Shchors lives in its detail, in wild gestures and extreme transformations, in rapid shifts of attention and multi-layered shots (in one scene, women riding to a wedding in a sleigh pass soldiers fighting from house to house). The cliché about film — that it’s a visual medium — is true of Dovzhenko. Sound could add nothing to Zvenigora, Arsenal, or Earth. The experimental, materialist soundtrack of Ivan is remarkable, but as late as Shchors (Dovzhenko’s third sound film), sound is largely redundant and irrelevant. Shchors is a film in flight, never lingering over its beautiful images, aware that glory exists in moments that swiftly pass.
Dovzhenko was part of the Soviet cinema’s heroic period, which saw montage as the highest potential of film, and his montage sequences are stunning (foremost among them is the harvest sequence in Earth). They push to a paroxysm Dovzhenko’s habitual style, which gives each shot an intensity, an inner movement, and an independence from context that invariably set it in contrast with its neighbors. No director has less regard for "continuity editing" or less use for standard formulas of editing. (A Dovzhenko reverse shot is never merely a convention but part of an individual visual pattern that demands, at a given moment, that two people facing each other be shown frontally.) With every shot and cut he made, Dovzhenko insisted passionately on the miraculousness of the cinema’s freedom to join fragments of time and space.
Both Earth and Ivan became the targets of violent attacks from doctrinaire Soviet critics. Dovzhenko managed to rehabilitate himself, but his position in Soviet filmmaking was chronically insecure. Between 1932 and his death in 1956, he managed to complete only three narrative films (including a masterpiece, 1935’s Aerograd, that isn’t part of the MFA series; Dovzhenko also supervised or partially directed several documentaries). His artistic legacy is small in quantity. But no film director, under any political system, left a richer body of work.n